News & Awards

Hugh Price: looking to the military for urban education reform

Apr 23, 2009

By William Saborio ‘11

Hugh Price, former president of the National Urban League and the John L. Weinberg/Goldman Sachs Visiting Professor at the Woodrow Wilson School, discussed the many virtues of implementing a military approach to education reform in a public talk on April 22 in Robertson Hall, hosted by the School.

“I’m not interested in militarizing public education,” he said. “What I’m interested in is what they know about training and education that might be extracted from that experience and injected into public education or other institutions.”

Citing the importance of developmental infrastructures in the success of education, Price stressed that the United States military has the right tools for creating an educational curriculum that can lift faltering school districts in the country.

“The basic point is that the military knows a lot about education, training, and development and a lot about the operation of organizations,” he said. “When you look at the challenges that young people are facing in schools,” he remarked, “it may well be that there are methods and models that can be applied in a creative way to help these youngsters.”

Price not only pointed to the possibilities of curriculum reform in applying military principles, but also to a military culture that creates an atmosphere where education can and does thrive.

“There’s a strong belief in belonging, in teamwork, motivation and self-discipline, safety and security,” he said. “It has a reputation for its ability to reach and teach and develop young people who are rudderless.”  Moreover, the military is “foremost among U.S. institutions in advancing minorities.”

Price explained he was drawn to the military’s developmental capacity in light of the high dropout rate among America’s youth, and expressed his belief that these high numbers serve as a proxy for the fact that there is a high level of disengagement in schools.

Reflecting on the efficacy of the U.S. education system, Price remarked, “We are not as competitive with the rest of the world as we need to be.”

However, Price saw that the military puts a premium on human development, an aspect of learning that education researchers have begun to highlight. He stressed that at the same time developmental infrastructure in American schools is disintegrating, “The U.S. military spends more money on understanding human development than any other institution on earth.”

Applying this military approach to school reform, Price outlined several educational reforms that could positively impact American structures of education. One such approach is the creation of “military high schools.”

“We can implement key attributes of these military high schools in troubled, conventional, or zone high schools, as we’ve done in a West Philadelphia high school right now,” Price said. “They’re getting a nice increase in attendance and also there is a significant decline in violent acts.”

But the education issue necessitates reform not only inside the educational system, but also the atmosphere students live in. Price also underscored the importance of community involvement and stressed that the community needs to create an environment that promotes learning.

“The community needs to get mobilized to try to transform the attitudes of the kids,” he said. Remarking on one such instance of successful community mobilization, Price said that he “saw some awfully powerful things going on.”

Crucial to this community reform is the sense of a student’s feeling valued, he assserted. The notion of being valued, he said, gives students a sense of motivation and a feeling of belonging.

“Belonging is enormously important, that’s something the military obviously understands,” he said. “When you think about it, the U.S. military is the world’s largest and best-armed gang. Believe me, they know gangs, they know belonging.”

He also spoke about his own endeavors in creating new forms of education, including starting the National Guard Youth Challenge Corps, an idea he presented to the National Guard in 1989.

Price related the day he pitched the idea to an official in the National Guard, who immediately understood his intentions and turned to him and said, “Mr. Price, we in the military are basically youth workers. We happen to train young people to make war. We can train them to do and be anything.”

The resulting quasi-military program, the Challenge Program, consists of a rigorous 22-week regimen. The dramatically positive results have even attracted the attention of the New York Times.

In response to a question considering the current political climate and its effects on the prospects of such educational reforms, Price seemed optimistic in spite of the economic crisis. However, he warned against the problems of policy making.

“I think there’s a fair amount of energy,” he said. “The challenge always is when you get to the macro level of thinking and analysis and finance, can you get it down close enough to the ground so that the experience of the children and those who educate them actually changes?”